APTI, Day 5 – A Hindu Wedding

While we were in London, Steven had received a call from his friend and colleague, Sachin inviting us to his brother’s wedding, and we had agreed to go. As it turns out, the wedding was at 7:15 in the morning. We wondered about the timing of the event, but thought perhaps the it was a judicious choice to avoid the heat of mid-day. In fact, we found out later from some of Steven’s other friends, the timing of a Hindu wedding is governed by the horoscopes of the bride and groom, and is set at a time that is deemed to be auspicious for the marriage.

Having set our alarms for 5:00 a.m. we got up and made our way to Steven’s office, where Sachin had arranged for a driver to pick us up at 6:45. The driver was a bit early, which was a good thing, since the wedding took place at a community hall far across the city. After many nervous calls from Sachin, we fortunately arrived in time for the ceremony.

Steven had attended a Jain wedding some time earlier, so he had warned us to expect having tea and coffee offered to us many times and to pace ourselves. No sooner had we arrived at the wedding than Sachin offered us tea and coffee. While we were laughing and explaining to Sachin about Steven’s warning, Sachin’s uncle came up to us and, assuming that Sachin had not yet fulfilled his duties as host, coached him, “Tea or coffee,” with attendant Hindu head-bob.

Those of you who have “endured” lengthy Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox weddings can rest easy. You ain’t seen nothing until you’ve been to a Hindu wedding. The ceremonies had begun the night before with various rituals which Sachin explained to us.

In the morning, the rituals continued. The first part of the ceremony we witnessed involved the “revealing” of the bride to the groom. Each stood on a small platform covered in a bed of rice, while relatives held a silk screen between them.

Their faces lit up by the brilliant glare of the video camera The bride and groom are each blessed Sand painting on pavement outside the wedding hall

The groom drapes flowers over the bride

The bride and groom are blessed

Sand “painting” outside the hall

The entire ceremony is conducted in Sanskrit, which would be the direct equivalent of a western, Christian wedding being conducted in Latin. In other words, none of the participants in the ceremony understand the various incantations, although the Pandit did stop to explain the meaning of each portion to the bride and groom, but since that explanation was in Maharathi, we were pretty much left to our own interpretations of events and to Sachin’s occasional explanations. But even Sachin admitted, with some exaggeration, “I don’t know what goes on here; I only know that if I do this, I get a wife.”

The initial morning ceremony only took about half an hour, which surprised us. After that, we were immediately ushered downstairs for breakfast, a simple rice flake dish, and more tea and coffee. That was when we learned that the ceremony was continuing upstairs. We wandered up to watch more of the rituals. In all, there were more than seven hours of ceremony over the two days. Yet this was an abbreviated ceremony, since the community hall in which it was held is nestled tightly in a suburban neighbourhood that doesn’t appreciate some of the rowdier activities in a full ceremony. These “banned” activities include having the groom ride into the ceremony on a white horse and the “Baraat,” a parade involving music and dancing.

However, the atmosphere of the ceremonies bears little resemblance to its Christian equivalent. While a certain solemnity accompanies parts of the rituals themselves, the atmosphere surrounding them is anything but solemn. People mill about and come and go as they please, chatting amongst themselves enthusiastically. Even during the initial morning ceremony, the bride’s sister fussed with the bride’s hair during the ceremony.

I had been unsure of whether to bring my camera, but I decided to bring it and follow the lead of other guest in deciding whether or not to pull it out. I needn’t have worried. Cameras were everywhere and all parts of the ceremonies were photographed. In fact, the entire function was photographed and videotaped by two gentlemen who were being anything but unobtrusive. The videographer had a huge light on top of his camera that seared the eyeballs of anyone in its path. One had to feel sympathy for the bride and groom who spent much of the day in its blinding light and withering heat. Just to give you an idea of the heat output of this monster, at one point in the ceremony the Pandit needed to pour some ghee (clarified butter) on a small bonfire as part of the ceremony. Unfortunately, the ghee had hardened. No problem. The videographer came to the rescue by focusing the blistering heat of his lamp on the ghee, which melted in seconds, and the ceremonies continued.

The photographer was even more intruding. Often, no sooner had the Pandit managed to herd participants into place when the photographer would intervene and re-position them for a better shot.

While the star of a western wedding is undoubtedly the bride, in a Hindu wedding, that honour goes to the groom. The bride may be beautiful (in this case, she could have easily served as a stand-in for actress Thandie Newton) and she may wear an equally beautiful sari, but the groom’s clothes are every bit as elegant, and far more plentiful. As we bade farewell to the couple as we were about to leave, Irene asked Amit, the groom, how many outfits he had worn that day. He confessed that the western suit he was currently wearing was his fifth set of clothes.

As elaborate and prolonged as the ceremonies were, there probably isn’t time and space here to document everything, even if I had understood it all and could remember it.  There are however, some features that may be worth noting.

Part of the initial ceremony had the entire audience (congregation?) throwing rice at the couple at various intervals.  We just followed everyone else’s lead on this.  Sachin’s uncle brought us more rice at one point and cautioned us not to throw it all at once, but to “throw it in installments.”

Sashes entwined, the bride and groom circle the bonfire.There is an extended portion of the ceremony which has the bride, groom, and pandit seated around a small bonfire and performing various rituals.  This caused each of them some discomfort from smoke drifting in their eyes, until someone figured out just which fans to turn off to allow the smoke to travel upward.  Near the end of this session, the groom leads the bride around the bonfire several times with their shawls entwined.

In western terms, the bride is “given away” quite late in the ceremony.   In this case, because the bride’s father had passed away, that function was performed by her uncle, who had travelled from Massachusetts.   Both he and his American wife were unaware that they were to be part of the ceremony or that, as the eldest uncle (and aunt), the wedding invitations had actually been sent out in their names.

And the groom offers a bribeOne interesting tradition has the bride’s brother twist the groom’s ear and admonish him to treat his sister well.  In this case, the scenario took on a certain comic element because the bride’s only brother was barely in his teens.  The picture at the right shows Amit, the groom offering the brother a bribe to stop the “torture.”

The groom walks the bride along a bed of flowers.Flowers feature almost as large as rice in a Hindu wedding.  For example all the women attending the wedding are offered garlands of jasmine flowers for their hair, giving the entire hall an intense but pleasant fragrance.  One of the prettier rituals involved the groom leading the bride along a platform strewn with flowers.

Later in the day, someone steals the grooms shoes, and he must go searching for them.  In the end, he pays a ransom to recover them.  We thought this was an interesting “tradition” but later one of Steven’s friends informed us that this wasn’t, in fact, any long-standing Hindu tradition, but something Hindu weddings had “acquired” from a very famous and popular Bollywood movie.  As if they needed more rituals!

We didn’t stay until the very end, but apparently, in the final ritual of the day the bride leaves her family and crosses over to her husband’s family.  In Indian culture, this is much more than a symbolic move. Hence, it is accompanied by much wailing and caterwauling on the part of the bride’s family.  We had been warned by Sachin and others that this might be part of the ceremony we would like to miss out on, so we did.

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